Tulear to Isalo – Scenic sandstone and granite landscapes
Day 12 10/20 Time for a fancy hotel
After breakfast we departed the hotel, but not before our tour operator gave the group an earful about him having had to pay $80 for water. Apparently that was not acceptable and we were asked to take bottles only while in the field and to take them only from our respective cars. This worked well in theory – until water started running out in one car and then it was on to the other two cars and so on. Later that morning our own experience proved this point when we started looking for water. We did not find any bottles in our car so went to another car only to be scolded by the tour operator who told us to go get water from our car. Given the lack of water in our car, a minor argument ensued and in the end we were allowed to get water from a different car.
As we left the hotel we passed by a Tropic of Capricorn sign – the hotel had been just outside the tropics, and we were now re-entering the tropics for the remainder of the trip.
By noontime we had arrived at Zombitse National Park, an area with short dry forest, which turned out to be a nice place for a walk. We had our lunch at a picnic area while enjoying the resident Giant Coua parading around the picnic tables. After lunch our tour operator hired a local guide at the park headquarters and we started our guided tour.
Next to the main road, as we were starting our walk, we spotted Verreaux Sifakas eating flower buds in the trees. More about lemurs here.
As we started our walk our guide saw and pointed out a Spear-nosed Snake (Langaha madagascariensis).
Later on during our walk we saw a Sportive Lemur and a nocturnal gecko. We also spotted a group of Verreaux’s sifakas near the trail.
Some of the plants we saw during the hike were: Adenia sps, Kalanchoe sps, orchids, Adansonia za, Euphorbias, Uncarina sps. and Aloe vahombe among others.
Orchids are an interesting component of the vegetation in Madagascar and they occur in many habitats. Although most are found in the humid forests, others grow exposed on rocks and yet others are found in the dry forest. Vanilla, an important economic crop, is obtained from the seed pods of the orchid Vanilla planifolia. Today Madagascar and Reunion are known worldwide as vanilla-producing countries and this is an important crop for their economies. Many people don’t realize that vanilla is not originally native to this part of the world. The vanilla-producing orchid is native to Mesoamerica, specifically southern Mexico and Central America. It was taken to Europe by the Spaniards and then to Madagascar and Reunion by the French in the 19th century and for some reason it became a very important crop for this area. Today, although vanilla is still produced in Mexico, it is not as important a crop as it is in Madagascar and it is much less sought after than the famous Madagascar vanilla. Interestingly, though people took the vanilla orchid to another part of the world, they did not take the pollinators, thus the orchids that produce vanilla in Reunion and Madagascar have to be hand-pollinated. Perhaps this explains why vanilla from these areas is expensive compared to the inexpensive vanilla you can buy in Mexico. You can read more about vanilla here.
After the Zombitse walk it was time to head for the famous Relais de la Reine hotel near Isalo National Park. On the way we passed a busy town where the main business was the sale of sapphires.
On the way to the hotel we also went through nice examples of Madagascar palm savanna. Scenic hills and grasses mixed in with the beautiful blue palms Bismarckia nobilis. The genus is named after the first chancellor of the German Empire, Otto von Bismarck. This genus is endemic to Madagascar. The palm flora of the island is diverse, with about 170 species of which 165 are endemic.
We finally made it to the hotel and after waiting to have the hotel and tour operator figure out the details of dealing with the lack of a room for him and TV in the main hotel, we finally got our keys and dispersed. There was only time for a quick trip to the pool and a brief peak at the grounds. The hotel was situated amongst large sandstone hills and the grounds were nice. There were some succulents growing on the rocks.
Dinner at the hotel consisted of a fixed menu where you choose from a couple of options for appetizers, main course etc. In spite of all the expectations (our tour operator had mentioned that this hotel would have the best food in the trip) I was not all that impressed with the food.
Day 13 10/21 Isalo National Park and an interesting taxi ride.
Isalo National Park was supposed to be the highlight of the day. Upon arrival at the town near the park where you have to pay the entrance fees etc. we all had to wait a bit. Paperwork is another issue when visiting parks in Madagascar. You have to pay the entrance fee, you have to find and pay for a local guide, and you have to decide which trail or “circuit” you are doing. The amount of time allowed for each trail varies, as does the cost.
After meeting our local guide who spoke good English we were ready to start the trail. We tried to get more detailed information from him about the route and what we would see in the way of succulents, but were not very successful. So we embarked on yet another hike where little information was provided prior to the hike.
Isalo National Park is scenic and the landscapes mostly consist of sandstone formations, with grass covering some of the flatter areas and trees, including Pandanus and palms in the moister drainages. We saw some nice succulents such as Pachypodium rossulatum, Aloe contigua, Kalanchoes, Cynanchums and some orchids, but, Isalo National Park was not really a “must-see” place for succulents. Our impression is that we were here because 1) there are some succulents, 2) this park is one of the main attractions in Madagascar (especially for hiking) and 3) it was on our route back to Tana. After a couple of hours on the trail we stopped for a lunch break at a picnic site. From here we shortly thereafter arrived at a stream with natural pools. This was a nice area with lush vegetation, including Pandanus and one species of palm. The pools are very popular with tourists who come ready to swim.
The day was going well until we finished the visit to the pools. At this point the park guide and the tour operator explained to the group that we had two options. We could go on another 3 or 4 miles and hike to a waterfall along the way and end up in another parking lot or we could return the same way we came. We were not fully aware that whomever chose the later option would not be returning alone, but with our guide TV. Another little detail that was not mentioned was that if returning the same way we came we had to get to the parking lot in less than an hour – otherwise the vehicles would have gone to the other parking lot to wait for the rest of the group.
We tried to get more information about the condition of the trail, what we would see etc. to help us decide if we wanted to go on or not. We knew this trail would be long and as usual you could not really go at a very slow pace since you have to follow at the guide’s pace. Thinking we may have a bit more time for photography and happy to have the opportunity to enjoy a more leisurely return walk, we decided to turn around and retrace our steps. In the end we were the only ones that did this and then we discovered that TV had to come with us. Neither him nor us were happy about this, but we started our walk back to the parking lot. He never mentioned the need for rushing back to the parking lot.
This part of our hike was relaxing and we enjoyed it very much. It was nice to be able to have more time to take pictures of the landscapes, the carnivorous plants (Drosera spp.), the Cata lemurs and to look at birds and lizards etc.
We made it back to the parking lot to discover that our vehicles were not there. It was at this point that TV informed us that we had taken too long getting back and the vehicles had gone to the other parking lot. Of course the other parking lot was too far for us to walk to. Our first suggestion was for him to call our tour operator or perhaps one of the drivers so they could pick us up on the way back. Surprisingly, TV did not have the cell phone number of either our tour operator or any of the drivers. Fortunately, there was another tour vehicle getting ready to leave and TV asked the driver to give us a ride into town. Then at the town TV proceeded to stop a few vehicles to negotiate a trip back to the hotel. This took a bit of time, but we finally found a car. This car was really something, the gas tank was next to the passenger seat and it consisted of a milk jug with a hose attached to it. There were no functioning doors or windows and the driver had to push on a strange looking metal stick to shift gears.
Both the condition of the taxi and the myriad noises emanating from it as we headed back to the hotel brought back the not so happy memories of our taxi experiences in Senegal. Senegal is the only country we have visited where we did not find a single taxi during our 2-week stay that was not literally falling apart. At least here in Madagascar they did not charge an arm and a leg for their services. We were somewhat relieved when we pulled into the hotel.
Today’s experience highlighted many aspects of the tour that were not so positive such as the lack of planning and or coordination and the absence of good communication on the part of our tour operator. It was difficult not to conclude that we (tour members) were never going to know very much about the daily tour activities, how many stops we would make, and what we could expect to see during these stops or level of physical difficulty. It was futile to ask questions only to get common answers such as: “I don’t know” or “It’s Madagascar!”
Trying to get more detailed information from the local guides prior to a hike could also be frustrating, perhaps it was just their inability to provide this information or maybe it was a language problem?. It would seem that guides expected tourists to be ready to follow them on whichever circuit the tourist choose without asking too many questions beforehand. Speaking to TV, our guide, I mentioned the variety of reasons why we generally prefer to have more information about a trail before starting a hike or walk. He was very surprised to hear this and did not appear to really understand why we felt that way. One way to get around this problem if you come on a private tour is to hire the local park guide for the day. Then you could have more flexibility, you could turn around if you don’t like the trail or what you see or don’t feel up to finishing the long circuits.
As mentioned previously none of the guides we met appeared to have a very deep knowledge of the natural history of the parks or reserves. Our local guide at Isalo had never seen the carnivorous (actually “insectivorous” for purists) plants (sundews) we spotted shortly after we started our walk and he did not know anything about these plants. The plants were next to the trail and he must have taken tourists along this same path dozens of times. Thus he never saw any reason to go slow in this particular section of the trail. He actually told us that most of what he knew he knew he had learned from tourists and he was happy to make a note of this new information to share with his next tour group.
Comments I heard from some tour members, who took the complete hike that we did not do, indicated that the detour to the waterfall on the longer trail was not that easy for some. Guides tend to assume that everyone is in the same physical condition or is willing to make a big effort to see a waterfall, for example. It does not occur to them that what is easy and/or worthwhile for some people can be difficult or less interesting for others.
The description of our Madagascar tour provided by our tour operator clearly indicated that there would not be any really difficult or physically demanding hikes. There where, however, enough instances where this was not true for everyone and some of these walks did not yield much in the way of succulents for the effort. That is the main reason why more than once I decided to skip the planned hike at some of the stops. I should add that I never heard anything from any member that made me regret staying behind on those occasions.
We were in luck today as our little adventure ended well (this was the case mainly because TV came with us and found us transportation and had money to pay for it – we accidentally did not bring any money on this day) and we returned to the hotel almost 3 hours before the rest of the group giving us extra time to explore the hotel grounds and the hotel trails.
Exploring these trails produced many of the same succulents that we saw at the national park and a few that we did not see at the park. It is almost certain that all the plants we saw at the hotel were also found at Isalo National Park, but access and the time to find them and photograph them were better at the hotel. Perhaps the rest of the group saw more succulents that we did at the park since we did not complete the full circuit. In any case our afternoon exploration of the hotel trails was a pleasurable experience. We appreciated having more time to enjoy this habitat and to discover and photograph the plants, animals and landscapes found in this area of Madagascar.
The birding was also rewarding along the trail and especially near a small stream where we could hear frogs calling. We enjoyed close-up views of the Madagascar Coucal, Broad-Bill Roller and Madagascar Olive Bee-Eater. Lizards were also abundant on the rocks along the trail and on the hotel grounds.